The title of this blog is the same as the title of one of the most famous books of the Cold War, Arms and Influence by Thomas Schelling. Schelling was one of the earliest theorist of nuclear deterrence (using the threat of nuclear attack to stop an actual nuclear attack) and compellence (using the threat of nuclear war to coerce an opponent into doing something). Schelling and others like Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn helped move the discusssion in the think tanks and Washington from a combination of panic about the balance of terror with the Soviet Union to a more measured approach.
At times, the approach in places like the RAND Corporation got a bit too measured (or measurable), with complex mathematical models that attempted to model or predict how nuclear crises would play out. The problem was, the people working on these projects took the math a wee bit too seriously. Terms like "acceptable losses" and "collateral damage" implied that Strangelovean characters in the Pentagon were plotting how to "win" a nuclear exchange. Clearly, "existential deterrence" was closer to the truth: arguing that the US would "win" a nuclear war if we destroyed Moscow, Leningrad, and Minsk, while they only annihilated Chicago, was ridiculous. Deterrence worked because any attack was an unthinkable, apocalyptic event. (Much how people feel about terrorist-delivered nuclear attacks today.)
Every field has its hacks, as did the nuclear strategists. Schelling was no hack. He was a thoughtful, articulate, and often original thinker who performed some critical thought experiments about nuclear crisis management. He was also brilliant at coming up with apt analogies: for instance, he likened a nuclear confrontation to a game of chicken. Now, that statement may seem a bit trite, but Schelling's thinking went further: he identified the party with the least control over his car as the one with the most actual control over the confrontation. (One driver has more of a choice to veer off, in other words...And he feels the pressure of that choice.)
Schelling helped us "think about the unthinkable" in sober, realistic terms. His analysis veered into neither despair ("We're doomed!") nor hubris ("We have more nukes than they do--let's teach those Reds a lesson!"). Nuclear weapons had power, not so much in their use, as in the threat of their use--in some ways, almost by their existence alone. Decision makers could use the nuclear threat to engineer political outcomes, if only they (and the public) could think clearly about the subject.
Again, Clausewitz makes an appearance. I'm guessing that Schelling chose the title of his book carefully. It wasn't something obvious or meaningless, like Strategy in the Nuclear Age. The title instead implies, We have new arms in our arsenal--let's figure out how to use them as instruments of political influence.
I hope that we're at the same point with terrorism that we were with nuclear weapons around 1950. A dramatic event--the first Soviet nuclear test, or later, the launching of Sputnik--makes us feel threatened in a way we never were before. Attack could come at any time, at any place. (Though, you'll certainly note, short of acquiring a nuclear weapon, the number of people a terrorist group can kill in an attack is far, far smaller than how many people could have died if one Soviet missile hit its target.) The enemy is enigmatic, relentless, and dedicated heart and soul to our destruction. Sympathizers and infiltrators may live right down the block from you, and you'd never know it.
Somehow, we managed not to lose our collective wits for too long over the Cold War nuclear threat. Fear did lead us down some dark, blind alleys, such as McCarthyism, but we undid our mistakes. Not only did the United States survive, but so did the Constitution, democracy, the rule of law, open communications and debate, a free market, and other hallmarks of "the American way of life." And the enemy finally self-destructed, in part because of the appeal of the American example to dissidents in Eastern bloc countries.
Worth remembering, I think, especially when comparing the scale of threat.
[Next time, back to the topic at hand: war aims. I realized after writing my first post, however, that I forgot to explain the blog's title.]